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Singing the Midnight Back to the Dawn
The almost intolerable hope of Sam Cooke
It was late-August-hot on the south side of downtown Memphis, a block from the Lorraine Motel, whose terraces thronged with busloads of tourists from St. Louis, Mobile, Philly. Dehydrated like a weary desert pilgrim seeking refuge and fresh water, I stumbled into The South Main Book Juggler with little intention of buying anything. I was after air conditioning and hydration more than intellectual stimulation. But I figured, while I’m here I might as well.
I left with the first volume of Peter Guralnick’s monumental two-part biography of Elvis Presley, which seemed like the right thing to do in Memphis, given how much that city shaped the King’s musical imagination, and vice versa. It’s true that Elvis gets a disproportionate share of recognition for the musical culture of Memphis, and that sometimes his debts to Black music get far less credit than they deserve. One thing that drew me to Guralnick’s book is his attention to Elvis’ involvement with Black culture in Memphis in the 1950s, which I had first learned about through Preston Lauterbach’s book Bluff City, about the photographer Ernest Withers, who photographed Elvis at a Black music revue in 1956.
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As Guralnick shows, from an early age, Elvis was peculiar for so many reasons. There was just something different about him. One of the things that was different about him was that he hung out in Black music halls, which was unusual for a white kid in Memphis in the 1950s. It “took guts,” as B.B. King recognized. In one sense, Elvis’ socializing with his Black peers was far more rebellious than his allegedly scandalous on-screen hip-shaking.1
The author of books on almost everyone in Southern music, from Robert Johnson to Hank Williams to Sam Philips, Peter Guralnick is one of our most prolific chroniclers of American popular music. (His papers, now in a collection at the Wilson Library at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, occupy 218.5 linear feet of shelf space.) In 2005 Guralnick published a similarly monumental biography of Sam Cooke, who, during his time at RCA, sold more records than anyone, except Elvis.
Sam was—he came to earth near the Sunflower River in Clarksdale, Mississippi in 1931. His mother, Annie Mae, grew up in Mound Bayou, a self-sustaining all-Black settlement founded after Reconstruction in the Mississippi Delta. Sam’s father was a Church of Christ (Holiness) minister who hitchhiked his way up US 61 to Chicago in 1933. Cooke’s trajectory—from the Mississippi Delta up America’s most storied north-bound thoroughfare to the ever-promising Chicago—followed the pattern of the Great Migration that began about 20 years earlier. If a change was in the offing, it wasn’t going to come in Clarksdale. But maybe Chicago would be different.
The trajectory of Cooke’s musical career is a now-familiar trope which he in many ways helped to originate: the migration of the gospel-soaked, honey-toned voice from out of the Black church into the world, from the warm embrace of tender mercies to the cold comforts of worldly cash, and lots of it. And then, towards the end of his brief career, a kind of return, both to the South and to the urgency of justice.
This trope has all become a little clichéd, to be sure. Lines between the two worlds—the Black church and American “secular” culture—were not, and never really have been, quite so clearly drawn, and not in Cooke’s—or in Ray Charles’ or in Aretha Franklin’s—career, in which the hellhound on the artist’s trail was never really the devil so much the inscrutable God whose repeated demands for universal charity and justice proved more irresistible than even the temptations of worldly glamor. His life could be read as a Job-like kind of bargain, and who finally “got” Cooke in the end, in the moment of his controversial and ignominious death in 1964, no mortal will ever know.
Much of Cooke’s corpus rivaled that of Elvis’ for its swagger and lightness: neither artist really engaged that seriously with the kinds of questions Bob Dylan was singing into existence in 1963, at least not until Dylan did so. And Dylan—particularly “Blowin in the Wind”—proved to be a game-changer; both Elvis and Sam recorded their own versions of the era-defining song. They also both died way too young, and in their final acts left something revelatory.
In Elvis’ final moment on stage—the sweated, breathless, almost hallucinatory performance of “Unchained Melody” in June 1977, released posthumously on Moody Blue, retains its immense power for what it showed Elvis still capable of. From beneath the drug-addled and bloated flesh of the one-time King there emerges a glimpse of a personality of an almost other-worldly luminosity. Between bouts for breath, and what turned out to have been nearly-final gasps for life, the old voice is still there, the dynamic range from whisper-quiet control to the Vegas-sized operatic finale. And what is more apparent in the footage from one near-final performance, the occasional cracking of the old eye-candy crooked smile was still there, too. Elvis’ final moment was ultimately about what we saw in him, what we saw he could still do.
But Cooke’s final testament was about what Sam Cooke saw. His final musical pivot in late 1963 and early 1964 gave witness to a more explicit engagement with the realities of the world and of being Black in it. The crisis moment came for Cooke in a Shreveport motel (much of Cooke’s story pivots around motel rooms) in 1963. On October 8, “Sam had called ahead to make reservations at the Brand New Holiday Inn North just outside of town, but when they pulled yup in the Maserati,” with members of the band “trailing the packed Cadillac limo, the man at the desk glanced nervously at the group and saw he was sorry, there were no vacancies.”2 Cooke reacted with outrage, and the story ended with Cooke in jail.
The real reason behind the no-room-at-the-inn moment was obvious, if unstated (it was just a few weeks after the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham). The indignity of the episode (combined with the explicit influence of Dylan’s “Blowin in the Wind”) doubtlessly influenced the writing of Cooke’s magnum opus, “A Change Is Gonna Come.”
One popular version of the origin of what came to be known as an “anthem” of the Civil Rights Movement holds that Cooke recorded the song “for” Dr. King, with the intention of donating the song’s royalties to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. There are fragments of truth in this, but it seems to elide several different episodes into one origin story that is, apparently, not entirely correct. According to Guralnick, during one of Cooke’s passes through the Atlanta Airport, he ran into Dr. King. “Martin asked if Sam would perform at an SCLC benefit early in the new year, and Sam instantly agreed, and then they all hurried off to catch their respective flights.”
Later, in July 1964, Cooke’s managers authorized the publication of “A Change Is Gonna Come” on a tribute album dedicated to Dr. King featuring contributions from Louis Armstrong, Lena Horne and others, called The Stars Salute Dr. Martin Luther King. In any event, Cooke’s song (along with those by Ray Charles and Frank Sinatra) didn’t make the final cut, and the album didn’t appear until early 1965. The proceeds of the album were indeed intended to support the Movement, but this arrangement seems to have come well after the song was written and recorded over a year earlier.
“A Change is Gonna Come” marked a sort of return for Cooke, if not to the church per se, to a kind of religious concern, in the from of a prophetic sort of urgency, and a lament over the long delay of justice. Not unrelatedly, it was also a kind of return to the South, at least musically. For the recording sessions scheduled at RCA Studios in Los Angeles in January of 1964, Cooke enlisted an outfit of musicians from New Orleans, including drummer John Boudreaux, pianist Harold Battiste (of the legendary New Orleans musical family, and uncle of Jon Batiste), and René Hall, who was responsible for the distinctive orchestral arrangement that opens the track with a swirl of strings and a rumble of kettle drums.
Something more than just the sound was different about this one, though. Cooke’s friend Bobby Womack heard “a note in his voice other than just pride of authorship.” He heard a “premonition.”
“It feels like death,” said Bobby, never overly troubled with the need for reflection and seemingly sensing the same premonition himself. “He asked me, ‘What do you mean?’ I said, ‘No, I’m gonna take that back. It don’t feel like death, but it feels eerie, like something’s going to happen.’ He said, ‘Yeah, but that’s the same thing.’ I said, ‘It’s just the way it feel to me. The strings and everything is creepy, something’s going on, it sounds like somebody died.’ ” Sam nodded gloomily.3
Cooke became determined not to perform the song in public, but debuted the song on The Tonight Show on February 7, 1964. It was the only time Cooke ever performed the song on television.
A recording of Cooke’s performance of “Basin Street Blues” that night has survived, but the footage of “Change” has mysteriously disappeared. Which leaves it to us to “imagine the way in which Sam must have transformed the number in live performance, caught in a single spotlight perhaps, his face alight not just with the inspirational fervor of the song’s final declaration of belief but with the fierce determination and unrelenting anger embodied in each of its verses.”4
Throughout 1964, however, Cooke did sometimes, albeit rarely, sing the song in public, including at one of his final shows, at the Royal Peacock on Atlanta’s Auburn Avenue around Thanksgiving. The single itself was not released until Christmas of that year. By that time, Sam Cooke—just 33 years old—was dead from multiple gunshot wounds to the chest. He had been murdered under murky circumstances in a cheap motel in Watts.
As it turns out, those people who first heard the playback of the recording in the RCA studio in January 1964 were not wrong to hear a sense of foreboding in the ominous rumble of the kettle drums and the plaintive wail of Cooke’s opening line. It seemed in retrospect to have unwittingly forecast Cooke’s own death, much in the way King’s “Mountaintop Speech” in Memphis would do several years later. But in the lyrics of the song, as well as in its arrangement and production, there is also a kind of intermingling of hope and despair that comes from deep theological wells.
As Craig Hansen Werner writes, Cooke
testifies that it’s been a long, long time — the second “long” carries all the weight of a bone-deep gospel weariness. Then he sings the midnight back toward dawn. The hard-won hope that comes through in the way he uses his signature “whoa-whoa-whoa” to emphasize the word “know” in the climactic line — “I know that a change is gonna come”— feels as real as anything America has ever been able to imagine.5
The key word here is “long.” The song communicates an especially religious sort of hope that has resonances especially in Judaism, namely of a hoped-for change that never really fully arrives. There are affinities with Dr. King’s how long? not long from his speech before the state capitol in Montgomery at the end of the March from Selma in 1965.
The measurement of that “long,” however, is not in ordinary but in cosmic time: in the terms of Christian tradition, the promised kingdom of God is a “now-and-not-yet” reality. But as with the hope of Israel, the hope of fulfillment seems often to be indefinitely postponed, so that the cry “how long?” seems to go on forever. Or that, as the painter Georges Rouault entitled a painting of the crucifixion, “Jesus Will Be in Agony until the End of the World.”
“Oh, there been times that I thought
I couldn’t last for long
But now I think I’m able, to carry on”
There are, it should be added, good reasons for white people to resist casually co-opting that sense of despair that emerges from the specificity of Cooke’s experience as a Black man in America, and good reasons why white performers should be hesitant, at the very least, to cover “Change.”
On the other hand, there is a universal quality to the longing articulated in Cooke’s lament, to which people of all backgrounds can relate. But even more so, there is a universality to the call for justice, to the urgency of voluntary entry into the pursuit of that long-awaited and long-delayed kingdom within the specific conditions of each particular life, incarnated as each life is in contexts with very definite histories. To put it even more concretely, the pursuit of racial justice to which “Change” directs us must respond directly and indirectly to the culture and systems which gave rise to the song in the first place, systems which have long outlived Sam Cooke.
As my former teacher once wrote,
Thomas Aquinas…put the point succinctly: “The difference between hope and despair is the difference between possibility and impossibility.” It is, in other words, a great mistake to confuse hope with optimism. The optimist looks on the bright side, expects a happy ending. Hope, on the other hand, simply refuses the foreclosure of despair, resists the absoluteness of possibility.6
“A Change is Gonna Come” is not a promise, but the expression of a realist hope, its heart an “almost intolerable paradox.”7 It is foreboding and ominous because it gives no date for the delivery of that promised change, no guarantees “of what’s up there beyond the sky.” Its only demand is that we keep actively seeking its fulfillment, keep carrying on, hoping against hope…
This fact alone does not resolve the complicated question of Elvis’ alleged appropriation of Black music, of course, but that is a story for another time.
Peter Guralnick, Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke (New York: Little, Brown 2005), p. 526.
Guralnick, p. 549.
Guralnick, p. 552.
Craig Hansen Werner, A Change is Gonna Come: Music, Race & The Soul of America (New York: Plume 1998), p. 33.
Nicholas Lash, “Hoping Against Hope, or, Abraham’s Dilemma,” From The Beginning and the End of ‘Religion’ (Cambridge: CUP 1998), pp. 210-11.